One-Eyed Jacks: Zen Nihilism

One-Eyed Jacks (1961) opens in midscene with a smartly offbeat image: Marlon Brando, dressed like a Mexicali dandy, sitting idly on a long counter, eating bananas and tossing the peels onto a gold scale. The camera pulls back to reveal the interior of a bank, as the unconcerned robber surveys his partners gathering up the loot. Noticing a tremulous patron trying to hide her wedding ring, he grinningly accosts her, takes the ring, and pops it into his mouth—one coolly erratic customer, who immediately blurs the line between the teddy-boy-ish magnetism of the outlaw biker Johnny in The Wild One (1953) and the quizzical simian charm of a Polo Lounge Caligula in a fancy sombrero and a silk cravat.

A muted riot of sweaty brows and deadly stares, star turned director Brando’s ominous, custom-tailored western One-Eyed Jacks belongs to a line of conflicted, half-mad productions that appear doomed from the outset yet turn into more impactful film experiences than a barrel of cautiously wrought, fastidiously executed “classics.” Like 1976’s The Missouri Breaks and 1979’s Apocalypse Now (coincidentally or not, Brando’s last truly memorable roles), the movie feeds off its own internal struggles and foibles and makes those snarled circumstances into the fulcrum of a gloomy, cruelly uneasy disillusionment. Without pushing this jaundiced outlook into either grotesquerie or campiness, Brando’s gut-level, unexpectedly filigreed touch is all about shadings of creative destruction, suspicion, and dissolution: shooting down standard facades and cardboard tropes as soon as he arranges them up on the screen.

When Brando elected to himself replace Stanley Kubrick as the film’s director, his reputation as an incorrigible prima donna had already been cemented (how many synonyms are there for difficult?). At the same time, his psychological radar, intimate knowledge of chaotic dysfunction, and extraordinary gift for melding aggression with sensitivity gave him an inside track on the material. Brando was no regular movie star: from his first appearance on-screen in The Men (1950) and the shatteringly carnal performance in A Streetcar Named Desire that immediately followed, he had established himself as an existential brand, a cultural signifier. He embodied postwar mutations of cocksure rebellion and inarticulate desire, masculine beauty coupled to the barbaric yawp of rainy, filthy streets. Not only did he precede Elvis and Marilyn Monroe but, in some sense, each of those pliable icons was a chip off his fresh erotic persona (the primal and the oddly coquettish side, respectively). Teasing sexuality, poetic soulfulness, petulant vulnerability, and vulgar exuberance were all whipped together in the psychic sense-memory churn of his Method acting.

That technique, in his vehemently eccentric hands, found its malleable Truth in a virtuosic heightening of realities—musical runs up and down scales of behavior, modulating in a blink between unadorned, everyday gestures and operatic intensity, within a scene or even a line reading. The difference between Brando and the other breakthrough actors of the time—Montgomery Clift, James Dean—was a willful, unsatisfied quality on the outer edge of any given character or situation, on the cusp of tearing down the fourth wall. He turned catharsis into gamesmanship. Brando’s pivotal performance in One-Eyed Jacks is startling
for the way it concurrently seduces and baits the audience. The film is far less a closure-seeking narrative than an open-ended projection of self-psychoanalysis into discomfiting public view, a hypnotic procession of lies and masquerades, abandonment issues, meticulously stoked rage, and affectations picked up like women (or vice versa).

Yet the same bundle of contradictions brought piratical audacity, uninhibited intuitions, and an autodidact’s keenly skeptical intelligence to bear on the stiff-backed western form. From the standpoint of “classical” storytelling and budgetary efficiency, this was an ill-starred amalgam, but in terms of a rule-breaking, anticomplacency mentality veering persistently into unfamiliar, original areas, it provided a fine launchpad. If One-Eyed Jacks proved anything about Brando, it was that it’s all true—everything dubious, childish, and questionable about him, as enumerated by snark-tanking gatekeepers from Truman Capote on down to the lowliest tabloids. But so were the wild genius, the trick-shot bull’s-eye instincts, the loose-cannon sensitivity and empathy bound up in a dozen shades of ambivalence.

The backstory of One-Eyed Jacks is a morass: Pennebaker, Inc., the production company set up by Brando with his no-account father and funded by Paramount, was originally formed to produce a lofty, socially conscious western on the treatment of American Indians. Then they blew a bundle on a Louis L’Amour adaptation: again, dead on arrival. As the IRS started sniffing around, a novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones came to the company’s attention. A treatment by Rod Serling, who was just launching television’s The Twilight Zone, followed; a young Sam Peckinpah was brought in and wrote what some thought was a perfect script. Brando’s agent struck a deal, and hot kid on the block Stanley Kubrick was signed. Kubrick would convince Brando the perfect script was no good; they worked on a rewrite, Kubrick in his underwear and Brando sitting Buddha-like by a gong he struck when the cross talk got too heated. Calder Willingham took a flying crack at the screenplay; then writer Guy Trosper came in and immediately allied himself with Brando. At this point, Brando decided—reluctantly, he maintained—to direct the film himself. (Many around him thought that was always his intention.)

Never mind the artistic bollocks, here was this big, unwieldy conglomeration of clashing personalities, hefty financial interests, and the tough logistics of shooting on location in Monterey and Death Valley, finishing up with interiors on Paramount’s back lot. A film scheduled for three months and budgeted under $2 million would take six months and cost $6 million. The inexperienced, sometimes indecisive, sometimes punctilious director shot a million feet of film. Afterward, he instructed his editor to cut together different takes piecemeal, continuity be damned. The first rough cut went on for eight hours; he brought it down to four and a half, then eventually trimmed it to three.

Here’s where the exasperated studio took it away from him and he walked off in disgust (with possibly a touch of relief) but without a fight. The 141-minute version we are left with doesn’t look either “butchered” or “salvaged.” Ironically, the situation prefigures that of Peckinpah’s 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which found the director resurrecting and recasting the themes of his original One-Eyed Jacks screenplay. That film was taken away from him as well and brutally recut by MGM. My hunch is that if the footage could be found to restore Jacks (as was the case with Peckinpah’s film), it might be absorbing, and certainly illuminating, but the problematic/inconsistent knots the film ties itself up in wouldn’t be fixed. Brando deliberately baked those into the project, as with Peckinpah, or with Coppola’s giant, convulsive ambitions on Apocalypse Now. So it seems the Fates decreed that One-Eyed Jacks should be a rambling vortex of poetic-elegiac paradoxes.

And still, despite his inexperience, volatility, and indecision, Brando drove this ego-laden, over-budget vehicle far past what might seem to be its built-in limitations of material and form. Through a combination of darkly honed instincts, perverse dedication, penitence, and restlessness, he burst through the cloistered sandbox of golden-hearted gunslingers and black-hearted badmen and into more dicey, equivocal, nihilism-tinted territory.

One-Eyed Jacks looks hard at western conventions through disbelieving eyes: the hallowed gospel of heroism and romance spied from the gutter or an unkempt graveyard. Cloaking primal-archetypal family conflict in bandit-versus-lawman drag—a sort of Gunfight at the Oedipal Corral—the film gives us a prodigal Billy the Kid type called Rio (Brando) seeking to even the score with his former mentor, now the respectable Sheriff Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), who abandoned him to the federales. Using this hoary gunfighter’s revenge saga as a prefabricated framework (where the main conflict is leavened with a dab of mariachi-ingenue romance), Brando delivers a slow, twisted, almost incantatory ballad of betrayal, stunted emotions, masculine cunning, unexcused violence, all-around deceit, and failed atonement.

Kubrick had wanted to replace Malden with Spencer Tracy, but Brando chose his pal over Kubrick. You’d be tempted to dismiss that as mere buddy-system devotion—entourage over art—except that, as the decisive father figure, Malden gives an incandescent lift to what could have been a leaden part; he’s indispensable. Tracy by then was more an old-school symbol than a flexible, responsive actor; rather than a face-off between two unpredictable performers, the pairing would have been a conventional matchup in which the cultural baggage of each actor went head-to-Samsonite-head. The piquancy of One-Eyed Jacks is in how pointedly it undercuts the eye-for-an-eye, macho-mythological shtick of the heavyweight western. Rather than embracing tragic John Wayne swagger (or semi-ironic Rio Bravo bravado), Brando’s outcast-troublemaker sympathies place the movie in the serpentine line of Duel in the Sun, The Furies, Johnny Guitar, The Man from Laramie, and Forty Guns.

Strangely, though, the film also feels foreign, even if Brando may not have been directly influenced by foreign cinema—as though out of his own peculiar, freethinking midwestern daydreams, he had dredged up a bent universe next door to Buñuel’s. Instead of poking around under the dark hoods of Catholicism and the uptight bourgeois mentality, he drew on Freudian-tabloid personal issues (his train wreck of a father, a mind-numbing string of romantic conquests and break-offs), the dishonesty-as-second-nature climate of Hollywood, and the rancid aftertaste of physical and emotional abuse in his life (on both sides of that equation). Rio’s deflowering of Dad’s stepdaughter serves as a tit-for-tat means of payback as cheap, visceral, and timeless as the Old Testament, Shakespeare, or the collected gossip columns of Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. Its queasy reverberations ripple out so corrosively as to put this picture in the same sublimely disreputable category as Touch of Evil, Viridiana, and early Fassbinder, with Brando’s performance so mordantly indolent it rivals Toshiro Mifune’s ambling, self-scratching crab magnet in Yojimbo.

Kurosawa was certainly mining similar terrain there. Brando makes doubt into visceral weather: a laid-back humidity envelops sneaky, self-justifying characters, who perspire like crazy in dust-free 1880s cantinas/brothels/jails/hovels or enigmatically ponder the surf from Monterey beachfronts. (And like a surfer, Brando waited days for a shot of the perfect wave.) His directorial modus operandi was the slicing open of grayish, untreated areas behind convivial appearances, disrupting the pinched way everybody shows one face in public and reserves another (or several others) for their own compartmentalized purposes and agendas. One-Eyed Jacks also doubles as a handy manual for putting up a heroic-romantic false front, an emotional tourist’s guide to the art of seduction. And seduction as art—Method romancing.

Possibly taking his cue from Zen in the Art of Archery (a book he at the time handed out like a party favor), Brando aimed his William Tell bow at the chip on his own shoulder. As though acknowledging all the folks dying to see him get his comeuppance (“haters,” in Twitter parlance), he obliged them by having Dad whip his deadbeat character within an inch of his life, humiliating Rio like a circus animal, his gun hand smashed for the coup de grâce. At the same time, Brando showed as much zest knocking the halos off convincing, conniving tough guys (agile Malden, übercowboy Ben Johnson, hefty Slim Pickens, and creepy-snarly Halloween face Timothy Carey) as pulling wings off angels (most conspicuously Pina Pellicer, as the innocent-to-a-fault love interest).

But Brando had more than just subversive instincts going for him. (A few years later, for a scene in Arthur Penn’s The Chase, he suggested the specific slow-motion technique that Penn would utilize so effectively the year after that in Bonnie and Clyde. He could be practical as well as innovative.) One-Eyed Jacks demonstrates a propensity for undercutting melodrama and giving it daringly ambivalent backspin. Technical rough edges notwithstanding—his untutored attitude probably helped him trash clichés others would have clung to—Brando’s spontaneously combustive assemblages yield robust, darting effects. No one has played provisional sincerity off alienation any better than Brando does here, as he circles Malden or goes in for the romantic kill shot on poor, overmatched Pellicer. Foregrounding poker faces bluffing through pearly teeth, making small talk, and putting out shifty feelers, he breaks up the monotony by showing boisterous townspeople getting wasted at a fiesta or groggily coming out in their bathrobes, hungover, to watch Rio be bull whipped by dear not-so-old Dad.

David Thomson has characterized Brando’s work on the film as proof that he was fundamentally irresponsible and unaccountable: “Natural actors are not always professional artists.” That’s true so far as it goes, but more interesting is how Brando managed to draw on his own foibles, vices, and deceptions, incorporate them into the cinematic texture and substance, and make feet of clay into one subject of a movie known in France as La vengeance aux deux visages. Brando’s depiction of violence—with an emphasis on the base, clumsy, vicious, and indiscriminate—is the least romanticized, stoniest on film, bursts of random killing and pain without a trace of the mythic or redemptive. Malden’s death isn’t showcased or underlined, it’s almost an afterthought—given no more or less weight than the little girl caught in a robbery’s cross fire, or the fallen ex-compatriot whom Rio rides by without even noticing.

Here the “antihero” is not an empty masculine get-out-of-jail-free card, an excuse to act out and misbehave without actual consequences. As Brando plays him, he is antimatter, anti-martyr, anti-finally-sees-the-error-of--his-ways. He flirts with that good-bad-boy jive, sourly and somewhat contemptuously, toying with the audience, holding out the idea of redemption. But there is no other word for Rio: he is a prick, in all possible connotations and permutations. Blending Heathcliff poses with Wuthering Heights studio/location evocations, he pitches woo and lies outrageously against a stagy midnight sea backdrop, the photography like shots of anesthesia that put off the dismaying reality only for the minutes it takes to steal a virgin’s honor as smoothly as pickpocketing a Girl Scout’s merit badge.

Perhaps the film’s soft finale hems and hedges a little, but by then Rio’s track record of malice, grudges, spite, and mercurial perfidy, followed by attention-deficit remorse, largely speaks for itself. To come out of the picture believing that Rio’s flimsily rationalized actions reflect true love or some such drivel is equivalent to being the battered wife who against all history and experience believes her partner/assailant when he says, “I’ve changed, I swear.” Few movies, then or definitely now, have done such a nice job of dispelling the sentimental foolishness of love-conquers-all stories.

This is one thoroughly impious, unsanctimonious film, never making a play for some moral high ground or for a comfortable way of looking down on even its vilest miscreant. When a dancer spits on the corpse of the scumbag who was molesting her a second ago, his ignominious finish serves as a preview of the humiliation Rio, his perfectly justified killer, will undergo presently—and that he, in his own way, deserves just as much. As the avant-garde drone-meister Scott Walker sings in his industrial-strength homage “Brando,” “A beating / Would do me / A world / Of good.” One-Eyed Jacks etches a legend of human futility: the equivalent of Walker’s epitaph writ on a tombstone sinking into a swamp, alongside a fever-ridden inventory of quaint dining rooms, cozy family portraits, picturesque vistas, rugged profiles, unsullied reputations, and the ennobling gestures of bygone days.

You have no items in your shopping cart